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Gifted Education Should Not Be Zero-Sum


One of my favorite books is The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee. She recently adapted the book for young readers—titled The Sum of Us: How Racism Hurts Everyone—and my sons are currently reading it. The main premise of the book is this: Zero-sum thinking is how many Americans consider racism, social justice, and economic equality. The core belief is that when some people “win,” other people “lose.” Consequently, we feel compelled to scramble for resources we perceive as scarce, when, in fact, when some people “win,” we all win.

Resources are often scarce in public schools, not only due to a lack of funding, but because districts create conditions that bring about scarcity. For example, some specialty programs have limited seats, meaning not all who qualify for services receive them. This is the case with Old Donation School (ODS), the gifted school my children attend. (If you haven’t read Edjacent Designer Doug Wren’s three-part update on last year’s deep dive into equity at ODS, I suggest you start here before continuing to read this post.)

Recently, a large group of parents in my community erupted with anger when their first-grade children were not among the students selected to attend Old Donation School this coming fall. Apparently, changes to the gifted identification process led to a larger number of students being identified across the district than in past years.*

It is possible that the changes created a more equitable pool of qualified students who applied for admission to the gifted school. It is also true that a new problem has emerged; under the current model of gifted identification, ODS received significantly more applications this year for qualified students whose parents are eager to have their children in a full-time gifted program.

The Local Plan for the Education of the Gifted 2020-2025 posted by the district indicates that each of the students who are selected to attend Old Donation School “needs more than what is provided through the resource cluster program at his/her home school” and ODS has been identified as “the best educational environment to suit his or her academic and social needs.”

So now, unlike in previous years, a much greater number of students need more than their home school can provide, but will not receive the services they deserve. It does not have to be this way. The current process has created an artificial and unnecessary zero-sum game, which instigates parents to fight for their child’s right to a spot at the school at the expense of other children who also qualify for services.

There are many ways to organize resources differently, so ALL students get what they deserve and parents are not compelled to battle each other and the district for scarce resources. One way would involve the following steps:

  1. Implement a Response to Intervention (RTI) model for gifted students - RTI models are traditionally used to support students with special needs. In the model, 80% of students receive the instruction and support they need in a differentiated classroom, 15% of students need short-term intervention and support in specific areas, while only 5% of students need full-time, intensive intervention. Under this kind of model, approximately 95% of gifted students would be adequately served in a resource-cluster program with occasional pullout instruction by a gifted resource teacher. The remaining students, about 5% of the district's gifted population, would be eligible for full-time gifted instruction. The district could use the second-grade year to observe identified gifted students to determine the appropriate level of intervention needed. Only Tier 3 students would be eligible for full-time instruction at ODS. If more students qualify for Tier 3 instruction than spots are available, satellite campus classrooms could be formed based on the number of students eligible to receive services, as described in Step 2.

  2. Create a satellite campus system - Rather than only providing full-time gifted services for students who attend ODS, create classrooms of 20-25 identified gifted students from four to six schools that in close proximity (as needed per grade level). Each class would be taught by a gifted endorsed teacher.

  3. Redefine ODS as a teaching school - Eliminate grade 2 from ODS, increasing the number of seats per grade level in grades 3-5 by at least 42 students. Use a lottery system to determine which Tier 3 students should attend ODS, with parents agreeing their students are part of a teaching and learning environment. Hire the most experienced and effective teachers for ODS - people who agree to be mentors and coaches to school district gifted personnel, including cluster teachers, satellite campus teachers, and gifted resource teachers.

  4. Incentivize and invest in qualified gifted teachers - Encourage and pay for cluster teachers to get their gifted endorsement to create a large pool of qualified teachers for gifted students. Provide incentives such as release time for professional development and supplemental pay to support all teachers seeking their gifted endorsement. Publicly acknowledge all educators in the district who have earned their gifted endorsement. Track and share information about the increasing rate of gifted endorsed teachers on the district's website, and recognize individual teachers who have received this endorsement on each school's website.

  5. Seek regular, substantive opportunities to truly partner with parents and caregivers to focus on gifted services vs gifted identification - Identify and address pervasive gaps in parents’ and caregivers’ understanding about what giftedness actually means and what kind of services gifted students need.

    1. Schedule interactive quarterly meetings with parents and caregivers at every school to communicate about gifted identification and gifted services.

    2. Require Gifted Resource Teachers (GRTs) at each school to regularly survey the community they serve to discover and address misconceptions about giftedness and gifted services.

    3. Empower groups like the Community Advisory Committee for Gifted Education to solicit feedback from parents and caregivers when there are perceived gaps in services.

    4. Create regular, informal opportunities to express concerns and plan for improvement. Advertise these opportunities through GRTs and other means of home-school communication to ensure the public is aware of these meetings and their purpose.

When children receive the services they need and deserve, everyone benefits. When scarcity is dealt with, anger and frustration are minimized. When educators are trained to meet the needs of gifted learners, they are able to meet the needs of ALL learners with greater effectiveness and care.

When we eliminate zero-sum thinking, we are partners, not adversaries.


*Edjacent has requested data from the school district under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, which we anticipate may confirm our hypothesis that the use of local norming, a suggestion made by Doug in an article published two years ago, has led to improvements in equity in the process. A future Edjacent blog post will summarize the data and its implications after we receive it.

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